A CLEAR-THINKING HATCHET MAN
A gunshot and the tinkle of broken glass on the ship’s deck abruptly ended Ronald Storrs’s brief siesta. It was his third trip down the Red Sea in five months, when he had been banking on no more than one. This time Storrs was heading for the port of Jeddah, gateway to the chain of sandpapery mountains that gave the edge of western Arabia its daunting name: the Hijaz, Arabic for barrier. It was there that the ‘Great Arab Revolt’, as he had encouraged The Times in London to dub it grandiosely, had started four months earlier. Now Storrs’s ship, the Lama, was crammed dangerously full with secret supplies for this tribal uprising against the Ottomans, which had already begun to falter.
In his white tropical suit, damp with sweat and now stained red by the leather armchair in which he sat, with perspiration glistening on his balding head, the 34 year-old Storrs must have looked the reluctant adventurer he was. ‘We are loaded with coal, ammunition etc over 2 feet above safety line’, he had jotted nervously in his diary two days earlier as he left the port of Suez to go south. Nor had the departure date reassured him. Friday 13 October 1916 was, as the ship’s captain admitted, an ominous day to sail. Within ten minutes of this observation two of the Lama’s boilers had burst, making full steam impossible and adding an extra day to a journey Storrs knew from experience he would find very dull. A prickly man, Storrs hated the boring company which he had been forced to endure on previous voyages down the Red Sea. And so he had been eagerly looking forward to sparkling conversation with the ‘super-cerebral companion’ from the Intelligence Department whom he was traveling with this time.
But the intelligence officer had other ideas. He proved unwilling to join Storrs in a sedentary discussion of the merits of Debussy. And to Storrs’s great annoyance, he was amusing himself by shooting at a line of bottles balanced on the ship’s handrail instead. At 28, this man was seven years Storrs’s junior, too short to be a regular Army officer, with fair hair and electric-blue eyes. Everyone always noticed his eyes. ‘Very, very blue’, remembers Diana Elles, one of the handful of people alive today who knew him. Sitting in her elegant Westminster apartment within earshot of Big Ben, she told me how he had ‘a very keen face. You could see the pressure behind it.’ In his right hand he held a large Browning pistol, which he deftly raised again to eye-level. Another shot: another bottle evaporated from the rail. His name was Thomas Edward Lawrence. But, for his exploits in the desert over the next two years, he would emerge from the war as the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
© James Barr 2013